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The Early History of Delhi

Summary and Keywords

Delhi’s past begins in the stone age; this is evident from the stone tools found as surface finds at many places and the excavated site of Anangpur. Remains of the protohistoric period have been unearthed at Bhorgarh and Mandoli. Ashoka’s Minor Rock Edict I indicates that Maurya influence extended into this area. Sites such as the Purana Qila reveal a cultural sequence extending from the early historic to the medieval period. The medieval remains of the Qutb complex include a Gupta-period pillar, many aspects of which remain enigmatic. Remains of the Rajput and early Sultanate phase have been found at Lal Kot. Although the details provided by the textual, archaeological, epigraphic and numismatic evidence are sparse, they help outline the history of rural and urban settlements in the Delhi area long before it became an important political center.

Keywords: Delhi, Indraprastha, Mandoli, Bhorgarh, Purana Qila, Ashoka, Tomaras, Chauhans, Anangpur, Lal Kot

Writings on Delhi’s Early History

Syed Ahmed Khan’s Urdu Asar-al-Sanadid (1846) was the first detailed account of Delhi’s monuments; the second edition of the book, published in 1854, mentioned some of the early dynasties, forts, and cities, and included copies of some old inscriptions.1 Several decades later, a list of Delhi’s monuments was prepared by Maulavi Zafar Hasan.2 A more recent list has been published by the Delhi Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.3 As these works focus on monuments, they have little to say about Delhi’s ancient remains.

The expansion of knowledge regarding Delhi’s early history has been largely dependent on archaeological explorations and excavations, the earliest of which go back to the colonial phase. Alexander Cunningham conducted a survey of the archaeological remains of Delhi in 1862–1863.4 The report, which was published in 1871, included a details of local traditions related to Delhi’s ancient past and a documentation of the remains of what Cunningham, after the fashion of his time, called the “Hindu period” (as opposed to the medieval “Mahommedan” period), such as the inscribed pillars and Rajput forts. J. D. M. Beglar conducted another survey of Delhi in 1871, and the results were published soon thereafter.5 These 19th century surveys represent the advent of archaeological research in India, and their interpretations and conclusions can be critiqued on various grounds.6 Nevertheless they do provide useful preliminary documentation of ancient remains in the Delhi area.

The excavations conducted in independent India were based on a much more sophisticated understanding of archaeological methods and techniques and are distinguished by vertical excavations in which archaeological material was understood in its stratigraphic context and in relation to the archaeological sequence found at other sites in north India. However, many of them were instigated by the desire to locate archaeological “proof” for epic traditions rather than by dispassionate academic inquiry. From the1950s onwards, excavations were conducted at several points of time at the Purana Qila (Old Fort). Although initially inspired by the desire to find archaeological correlates to the Mahabharata, these yielded much useful evidence on everyday life in the area many centuries ago. The 1991–1992 excavations at Anangpur provided valuable information on the older prehistoric past.7 Excavations conducted by the Department of Archaeology of the Delhi Government at Mandoli (1987–1989) and Bhorgarh (1992–1994) threw light on protohistoric settlements in the area, while those at Jhatikara (1996) gave information on a settlement of the early historic period. Unfortunately, there are only brief accounts of the results of these excavations; detailed reports have not been published. This seriously limits the historical inferences that can be made from the archaeological material. Excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India at Lal Kot and Anang Tal (1992–1995) provided archaeological data on settlements associated with the Rajput and early Sultanate phase.

Surface explorations that have provided useful data include Dilip K. Chakrabarti and Nayanjot Lahiri’s survey of prehistoric stone tools in south Delhi and adjoining areas.8 The results of a village-to-village survey conducted by Nayanjot Lahiri, Upinder Singh and Tarika Oberoi in the Faridabad area indicates the rich potential of archaeological exploration in the area and the urgent need for documentation.9 Publications of epigraphic and numismatic remains are also relevant for understanding Delhi’s early history.

While the publications mentioned above contain important data that is pertinent to Delhi’s early history, a few works have woven these into a connected narrative. These are B. R. Mani’s Delhi: Threshold of the Orient (Studies in Archaeological Investigations), Upinder Singh’s Ancient Delhi, and Delhi: Ancient History, which offer accounts of the early history of Delhi from the stone age up to the early medieval period (c. 600–1200 ce).10 Both these works integrate the scattered data, especially archaeological data, on different phases of Delhi’s early history and present it against the background of broader historical developments. In doing so, they provide an important corrective to other histories of Delhi that essentially begin their narrative with the cities of the medieval period. Writings on the Tomara and Chauhan Rajputs discuss Delhi as part of the political principalities of these lineages.

The Physical Landscape

The area being considered here is the National Capital Region, including Old and New Delhi, and neighboring areas of adjacent states, such as the Faridabad district of Haryana and the Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh.

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Figure 1. Map of Delhi and neighboring areas.

Delhi is an area of plains and hills, located in a corridor bounded by the Himalayan mountains to the north and the Aravalli range to the south. It lies in the watershed between the Indus and Ganga river systems, at the entry to the Gangetic plains. This gave it a strategic commercial importance from very early times. From c. 600 bce, Delhi lay along the great northern trade route known as the Uttarapatha, which began in the northwest, swept across the Indo-Gangetic plains, and ended at the port of Tamralipti in Bengal.11 Numerous feeder routes branched off from the main arteries of the Uttarapatha into Sindh, Rajasthan, Bengal, and Bihar. These routes linked communities who lived in the area with settlements and people in other parts of the subcontinent and beyond. The physical landscape of the Delhi area has changed a great deal over the centuries, and recognizing these changes is essential for understanding its early settlement history.

The Yamuna river flows north-south through Delhi, and its alluvial plain supports a variety of agricultural and horticultural activities. It is possible that this river was once connected with the Ghaggar-Hakra River which flows through Rajasthan in the west. Over time, it gradually moved eastward to link up with the Ganga. A remote-sensing study by A. K. Grover and P. L. Bakliwal indicates that the river’s migration ranged from about 40 kilometers in south Delhi to about 100 kilometers in the north and west.12 Till about 4,000 years ago, the Yamuna flowed through the hills south of Delhi. Thereafter, it gradually moved eastwards into the plains, eventually settling into its present course. Several old channels of the Yamuna have been identified, and some present-day lakes such as the Najafgarh, Surajkund, and Barkhal represent remains of old paths of the river. Several perennial streams flow through the Badarpur hills south of the city. The ancient drainage networks are important for reconstructing the area’s early settlement and agrarian history.

The rocky, hilly stretches of the Delhi Ridge are the eroded outliers of the Aravallis, the oldest mountain range in India. There are four sections of the Ridge—the southern, south-central, central/New Delhi, and northern/Old Delhi ridge—which range in height from about 2.5 meters above the plains level in the north to about 90 meters in the south. These basically consist of quartzites of the Middle Proterozoic Alwar group, with veins of quartz, pegmatite, and other rocks and minerals. The thick deposits of fine-grained sediments found in the depressions of the Ridge may have been blown here from the Thar desert of Rajasthan, adding to the fertility of the alluvial soil in the area.13 It should be emphasized that the spread of the rocky stretches would have been much more extensive in ancient times than they are in the 21st century.

The two major types of ecological zones in the Delhi area were connected to each other through centuries-old networks. The plains provided agricultural produce; the hills provided raw materials like quartzite, slate, mica, and crystal. The pastoralists of the hills interacted with the farmers in the plains. Economic dependence, trade, migration, and pilgrimage contributed to creating strong networks of trans-local interaction. These were enduring facets of the history of the Delhi area over the centuries.

Prehistoric Tools and Sites

Delhi’s documented past begins in the stone age. Prehistoric stone tools have been found in the Delhi area, especially on the Delhi Ridge, which provided stone for making tools and abundant flora and fauna for food. The first prehistoric stone tool in Delhi was discovered by Surajit Sinha on the northern Ridge in 1956, and reports increased thereafter. Dilip. K. Chakrabarti and Nayanjot Lahiri’s survey in south Delhi and adjoining areas documented forty-three sites where stone tools ranging from the lower palaeolithic to the mesolithic were found.14 Mudit Trivedi’s exploration of a section of the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus yielded palaeoliths, microliths, and a series of petroglyphs (rock bruisings) that may have been contemporary to the stone artefacts.15

The only excavated prehistoric site in the Delhi area is Anangpur (also known as Arangpur) (lat 28° 27’ 40” N, long 77° 15’ 30” E) in the Faridabad district of Haryana, south of Delhi. It was excavated in 1991–1992 by the Archaeological Survey of India.16 Excavations along two old channels of the Yamuna here yielded thousands of early and late Acheulian tools in various stages of preparation. The large volume of tools and stone waste material indicated that Anangpur was not only a large prehistoric site habitation site but also a place where stone tools were made in large volume.

The reports of stone age artefacts and sites in the Delhi area are illustrative and not exhaustive. It can be presumed that there are many more unnoticed and undocumented sites, especially in the rocky stretches of the now denuded Ridge, and that innumerable sites have been destroyed due to quarrying activity.

Late Harappan Sites

The Late Harappan phase is the post-urban phase of the Harappan culture and is roughly dated between 2000 bce and 1000 bce. Certain sites in Delhi have been associated with this phase, largely on the basis of similar pottery. Late Harappan pottery has been reported from Mandoli, Bhorgarh, Kharkhari Nahar, and Nachauli; the first two of these have been excavated.

Mandoli village (lat 28° 42’ 10” N, long 77° 18’ 20” E) is situated on the bank of the Yamuna in east Delhi. Excavations carried out on a mound in the southwest part of the village between 1987 and 1989 revealed a cultural sequence from the Late Harappan phase to the 4th–5th centuries ce.17 In the earliest phase, there were remains of earthen house floors with post-holes in circular and arc patterns, which marked the places where wooden posts supported a roof. There were traces of ash and a burnt terracotta object, perhaps marking a hearth used for cooking. Apart from pottery, a bead and a circular terracotta cake were found. The settlement here seems to have been abandoned due to floods.

Bhorgarh (lat 28° 49’ 45” N, long 77° 5’ 15” E) is a village in north Delhi where excavations were conducted during 1992–1994. The Yamuna, which is 10 kilometers away today, seems to have once flowed close by. The excavations revealed an archaeological sequence stretching from the Late Harappan phase to the 16th–17th centuries.18 The discoveries in the Late Harappan level included graves with grave goods.

The Mahabharata Legend and Painted Grey Ware Sites

The mythical associations of Delhi have made far greater popular impact than have its scattered ancient artefacts. There is a popular belief that Indraprastha, the capital of the Pandava heroes of the Mahabharata epic, was located at the site of the Purana Qila, a 16th-century fort located in central Delhi, not far from the Yamuna, built by Humayun and Sher Shah. The earliest references to such an association are found in medieval texts—Shams Siraj Afif’s 14th-century Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi and Abul Fazl’s16th-century Ain-i-Akbari.

Excavations were conducted at the Purana Qila during 1954–1955, 1969–1973 and 2013–2014. The initial excavations were motivated by the desire to find archaeological correlates to the Mahabharata legend. Given the likely mixture of fact and legend in the epic, the long and complex compositional history of the work (extending roughly between 400 bce and 400 ce), and the dissonance between textual and archaeological evidence, the enterprise was fraught with problems. While “proof” for epic Indraprastha was not forthcoming, the excavations did clearly indicate that the medieval fort stood at the site of a very old settlement.

The archaeological sequence at the Purana Qila consists of eight levels ranging from the 4th–3rd century bce to the 16th–19th centuries. The excavators labeled these levels Maurya, Shunga, Shaka-Kushana or Kushana, Gupta, post-Gupta, Rajput, Sultanate, and Mughal. The discovery of stray sherds of pottery known as Painted Grey Ware (PGW), whose time range is c. 1000–500 bce,19 indicated that there could be an older settlement in the vicinity, but a PGW level was not identified during the excavations. The 2018 excavation at the Purana Qila has reportedly identified a pre-Maurya period level, but the results have not been published so far.

PGW has been found at several other sites in and around Delhi, which suggests that there were several old settlements here. The sites include Tilpat, Sihi, Bisrakh, Bhorgarh, Mandoli, Kharkhari Nahar, Jhatikra, Salimgarh, Majnu-ka-Tila, Gordon Highlanders’ Column (near Badliki Sarai), Bankner, Loni, Bhopani, and Chhansa. Apart from Bhorgarh, Mandoli, and Jhatikra, there is little else known about these sites apart from the discovery of PGW sherds.

The Early Historic Phase

The pottery that marks the early historic phase in Delhi is called Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW). The NBPW phase is associated with the beginnings and development of city life and it is usually placed between c. 700 bce to the 1st–2nd century ce, although some archaeologists have argued for an earlier date of c. 1300 bce for the beginning of this phase.20

Period I at the Purana Qila is an NBPW level. It revealed remains of houses made of mud brick and burnt brick; a burnt structure made of wattle-and-daub; and several hearths. Terracotta ring wells sunk into the ground were probably used as soak pits for waste water. The terracotta figurines of humans and animals found at NBPW levels at the Purana Qila form the earliest figural sculptures found in the Delhi area. Other significant finds included two inscribed sealings, punch-marked coins, and cast copper coins. This is the earliest evidence of writing and money in the Delhi area.

The more dramatic evidence of the early historic phase is a rock edict of the Maurya emperor Ashoka (who ruled c. 283–232 bce). The capital of this dynasty was in Pataliputra in eastern India, but the Maurya kings seem to have carved out a large empire. Its rough contours have usually been gauged on the basis of the location of the inscriptions of the third Maurya king, Ashoka, who is known not for his military victories but for his renunciation of war and his propagation of dhamma, which can be understood as goodness, piety, or morality. There are three places in Delhi which have Ashoka’s inscriptions. There is a rock bearing his Minor Rock Edict 1 in East of Kailash; a pillar bearing six of his edicts opposite Bara Hindu Rao hospital, near the University of Delhi; and a pillar with seven edicts which rises majestically from a three-storied structure in Firuz Shah Kotla. The two pillars [See figures 2, 3] are not, however, in their original place. They were brought to Delhi from Meerut and Topra by Sultan Firuz Shah in the 14th century. The now much eroded rock edict in East of Kailash [See figure 4] is in its original place, and is referred to in scholarly literature as the Bahapur or Srinivaspuri edict.

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Figure 2. The Delhi-Meerut pillar.

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Figure 3. The Delhi-Topra pillar.

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Figure 4. The site of Ashoka–s Minor Rock Edict 1, East of Kailash.

Like most of Ashoka’s inscriptions, the Minor Rock Edict is the Prakrit language and Brahmi script. The king speaks in the first person. Devanampiya (Beloved of the Gods, that is, Ashoka) states that over two and a half years had passed since he became a lay Buddhist, but initially, he had not made much effort. For over the past year, he had drawn closer to the Buddhist monastic order, and had been exerting himself in the cause of dhamma. The emperor announces that as a result of these exertions, gods and men had come to mingle in Jambudvipa (a geographical term with imprecise connotations). He goes on to state that the goal of dhamma could be attained not only by the highly placed but also by the humble, and that it could lead to heaven. He states that this proclamation was made so that humble and highly placed people should exert themselves in following dhamma and so that people living beyond the borders of his kingdom should know about this. The edict closes with an expression of hope—that exertion in the cause of dhamma should endure forever, that the cause of dhamma should be furthered among the people, and that it should increase one-and-a-half fold.

The Period c. 200 bce–300 ce

The period c. 200 bce to 300 ce is associated with series of invasions from the northwest and an expansion of agriculture, city life, trade, and the money economy in various parts of the subcontinent. Material evidence belonging to this period has been found at several sites in Delhi.

In the archaeological sequence of the Purana Qila, Period I (the NBPW phase) is followed by Period II (2nd–1st century bce), labeled the Shunga period; and Period III (1st–3rd century ce), labeled the Shaka-Kushana or Kushana period. There are remains of houses made of quartzite stone set in mud brick, burnt brick, and rubble stone. Floors were made of packed earth, and were sometimes paved with mud brick. The 2013–2014 excavations revealed a three-room house of mud brick and burnt brick, belonging to Period III and a lane consisting of tiny pottery fragments mixed with earth, belonging to Periods II and III. Terracotta plaques made their appearance—the male and female figures on some of them may represent deities associated with fertility and prosperity. There were figurines of humans and animals, and seals and sealings with names of people in the Brahmi script. Metal objects made of iron and copper made their appearance. Copper coins of kings of Mathura, and Kushana and Yaudheya rulers were also found.

At Mandoli, Period IV (c. 200 bce–300 ce), subdivided into IVA and IVB, suggests that the settlement here had become a town at around the turn of the millennium. The finds of Period IVA comprise the remains of a mud house and a variety of artefacts including handmade and wheel-turned red pottery of medium to coarse fabric with incised and stamped decoration; terracotta figurines of animals and small pieces known as “gamesmen”; shell objects and earrings; and what seem to be weights for fishing nets. In Period IVB, there were remains of houses made of burnt brick. The artefacts included terracotta plumb-bobs and figurines of humans and animals; beads made of semiprecious stones; copper rings; and shell objects. Iron artefacts made their appearance for the first time at the site, and included arrowheads, spearheads and sickles. Other finds included a fragment of a pot rim with Brahmi letters of the early centuries ce, and coins of the Kushana king Vasudeva II.

At Bhorgarh, Period II belongs to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Initially, houses were made of mud bricks, and in the later phase, of burnt bricks. The artefacts included terracotta figurines of humans and animals, terracotta beads, two terracotta sealings with legends, and copper coins.

In 1996, a small excavation was conducted by the Department of Archaeology of the Delhi Government at Jhatikara, about 12 kilometers south of Najafgarh. This yielded the remains of mud brick structures built over several phases, including what seems to be a kitchen. Apart from pottery, the discoveries included a hoard of eighty-two terracotta beads, seven copper coins, two copper earrings, a copper ring, and many iron nails.

The overall picture, based though it is on very meager evidence, is one of expanding urban settlements in the Delhi area. This corresponds with the pattern of urban history during this period in other parts of the subcontinent.

The Period c. 300–600 ce

The political history of north India c. 300–600 ce was dominated by the Gupta empire. The political center of the Gupta kings was, as with the Mauryas, located in Magadha in eastern India. But military expansion led the Guptas into various parts of northern and central India. There is an ancient inscribed iron pillar, currently located in the courtyard of the 12th-century congregational mosque in the Qutb complex in Mehrauli in south Delhi. The pillar is 23 feet 8 inches high and its diameter ranges from 16 inches at the base to 12 inches at the top. It is capped by a carved 3 feet 6 inches-high inverted lotus, and there must once have been another sculptural element crowning the pillar. Analysis has revealed the pillar to be made of wrought iron of high purity, with a high phosphorus content and a low content of carbon, sulphur and manganese. The pillar, fashioned by the technique of forge welding, is notable for its high degree of resistance to rusting.21 While its shaft is rust-free, there is evidence of rusting in the underground portions and grooves of the capital, which came into regular contact with moisture. It is possible that the pillar stands at or near the place where it was originally erected. However, it has been suggested that it may have been relocated from elsewhere, for instance, from the source of the Beas river in the northwest, Udayagiri in central India, or Gaya in eastern India.

The main inscription on the pillar is in the Sanskrit language and Brahmi script and consists of three verses written in six lines.22 It eulogizes the military exploits and fame of a king named Chandra. It states that fame was inscribed by the sword on the arm of this king when he repulsed the enemies who had confederated against him in Vanga country (in eastern India). It refers to his crossing the Indus and its tributaries and defeating the Vahlikas. The southern ocean is said to be still perfumed by the breeze of his valor. The inscription states that the king had left this world for heaven, which he had won by his deeds, but that he remained on the earth in his fame. His great glory, arising from his destruction of his enemies, lingers on the earth like the heat from the hot embers of a great forest fire. The king enjoyed supreme sovereignty over the earth for a long time through his prowess. In a play on the word “chandra” (which means “moon”), he is said to have the name Chandra, and the beauty of his face is said to resemble the full moon. The inscription closes by stating that this king had fixed his mind with devotion on the god Vishnu and had set up this lofty standard of the god (that is, this pillar) on Vishnupada hill.

Apart from the iron pillar, remains of the period c. 300–600 ce have been found at the Purana Qila in Period IV.23 These include remains of buildings made of bricks of older structures; red pottery; terracotta human and animal figurines; bone points; beads of semiprecious stone, glass and shell; and a lion-shaped faience bead or pendant. A small sandstone mukhalinga (the phallic emblem of the god Shiva with his face carved on it), and a terracotta medallion depicting the goddess Gaja-Lakshmi were also found. Several sealings were discovered, inscribed with what appear to be the names of officials or merchants. A gold-plated coin with the king as archer and the legend “Shri Vikrama” was also found. At Mandoli, Period V belonged to c. 300–600 ce and yielded fragments of red polished ware and an inscribed terracotta sealing.

Archaeological Remains of the Early Medieval Period

Delhi became a political center for the first time in early medieval times, under the Tomara Rajputs. Tomara rule was followed by the Chauhans, who were overthrown by the Mamluk Turks in the late 12th century. Excavations at the Purana Qila and Lal Kot have been routinely divided into “Rajput” and “Sultanate” periods, largely on the basis of numismatic evidence. However, as mentioned earlier, the assumption that the transition from the rule of the Rajputs to that of the Delhi Sultans let to a dramatic change in material culture can be questioned.

Anangpur, which was discussed above as a prehistoric site, also has medieval remains. The name of Anangpur village suggests a connection with a Tomara king named Anangapala, either Anangapala I who ruled in the 8th century or Anangapala II, who ruled in the 11th century. The site was excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1992.24 The ruins of a fortification wall varying in thickness from 3 to 4 meters, punctuated by 21 semicircular bastions, were found. Within the fortified area were remains of roads and rubble structures with thick lime plaster. Artefacts included fragments of red pottery; a Rajput coin perhaps showing Shiva with a bull and traces of a legend in Nagari script on the reverse; a quartzite slab with a Nagari inscription; and a broken stone sculpture of a seated drummer. Pieces of glazed pottery belonging to a later period were found on the surface of the site. Near Anangpur village, there is a massive stone masonry dam, built to harvest rainwater, probably during the Tomara period. It is approximately 50 meters in breadth and 7 meters high, with sluices at intervals to control the water flow.

In the archaeological sequence at the Purana Qila, Period V has been labelled as the post-Gupta period, and Period VI as the Rajput period.25 The former revealed structures made mud brick and burnt brick, including reused bricks belonging to earlier structures. The typical pottery was a red ware, including a distinctive type of knife-edged bowl, and other artefacts such as beads and terracotta figurine fragments. The 2013–2014 excavations additionally revealed in Period V the remains of two walls made of reused bricks and artefacts including pottery fragments; a terracotta long barrel bead, wheel, sling ball, gamesmen, and female figurine; a copper object; and beads made of semiprecious stones. These excavations also revealed the remains of a Period VI fortification wall (4.4 m x 1.40 m x 1 m) made of semidressed stone.26

Five structural phases were identified within Period VI.27 Apart from the fortifications, the finds of this phase included remains of several structures, variously made of mud brick, burnt brick, rubble, and reused bricks. House floors were made of mud, and some hearths were identified. The artefactual remains included red and black pottery; a stone weight; terracotta figurines, beads, spoon, sling ball, gamesman; beads of terracotta, carnelian, semi-precious stone and shell; copper artefacts; ornate molded bricks; a piece of pottery inscribed with damaged letters in the Nagari script; pieces of crystal and coral; fragments of carved stone tablets; and copper coins with the bull and horseman motifs. Other interesting finds included two small stone sculptures of the god Vishnu and an earthen pot containing bells and other copper objects.

It has been suggested that the Period V fortifications at the Purana Qila could belong to the Tomara period, and that during the 11th century, when Anangapala II had established himself in the Lal Kot area, some sort of lower administrative unit or watch-post may have been located at the site of the Purana Qila.28

Early investigations of the fortified settlement at Lal Kot (lat 28° 31’ 40” N, long 77° 11’ XX” E), not far from the Qutb complex in South Delhi, were conducted in the 19th century; more extensive work was done by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1995.29 The settlement here is divided into two phases—Period I is dated between the mid-11th to late 12th century and is described as belonging to the Rajput period; Period II is dated between the end of the 12th century to the middle of the 14th century and has been labeled the Sultanate phase.30 Here, the focus is on Period I. Lal Kot is believed to have been built during the time of the Tomara king Anangapala II in the mid-11th century, when the political center was shifted from Anangpur to Lal Kot. It is estimated that the fortification wall ran for about 3.6 kilometers, ranged in thickness between 2 and 9 meters, and enclosed an area of 763,875 square meters. The wall was punctuated by semi-circular bastions, and was surrounded by a moat. The artefacts unearthed at the site included abundant pottery; terracotta figurines; a copper ring and iron arrowhead; beads of terracotta, semiprecious stones and glass; bangle fragments of bone, ivory and glass; rings of copper, quartz and lapis lazuli; and several copper coins. Some Hindu religious images found on the surface of the site or in Period II levels were oddly connected by the excavators with Period I; these included a small sandstone image of the god Ganesha; a Nandi bull (associated with the god Shiva); and a terracotta mould fragment for casting the figure of a Jaina tirthankara (saint) flanked by two figures.31 At the very least, they are suggestive of a certain amount of religious diversity.

The analysis of forty-two bone fragments from “Rajput levels” at Lal Kot revealed that most of them belonged to goats and sheep, and one was that of a buffalo. Cut marks on the bones indicate that the animals were killed for their meat. The bone fragments of the later “Sultanate level” show greater diversity and include the bones of domesticated and wild animals, namely cattle, buffalo, goat, sheep, deer, chicken and tortoise.32 The evidence points to a change in the dietary preferences of the elites who lived here.

About 12 kilometers east of the excavated Lal Kot ruins are the remains of a Rajput-period tank known as Anang Tal. Excavations revealed this to be a large, oblong tank constructed of dressed and semi-dressed blocks of stone with some lime masonry, with pyramidal steps descending into it. The tank may have been built by Ananagapala II in the mid-11th century. The Anang Tal was also surveyed by Geo-Radar methods to identify the outlines of the structures buried underground. Another water reservoir in the Delhi area which may have built during the Tomara period is Suraj Kund [See figure 5] in Faridabad district, south of Delhi, whose names suggests an association with King Surajpala.

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Figure 5. Surajkund.

In the middle of the 12th century, Tomara Rajput rule over Delhi was challenged by the Chahamanas, also known as the Chauhans. Vigraharaja IV, known as Visaladeva in the Rajasthani bardic histories, was the Chauhan king responsible for this. He is mentioned in three inscriptions on the Delhi-Topra pillar in Firoz Shah Kotla, and one of them refers to his extensive conquests from the Himalayas to the Vindhya mountains. But as mentioned earlier, this pillar was originally erected in Topra village in Haryana. The most striking material evidence of the Chauhan presence in Delhi can be seen in the ruins of Qila Rai Pithora, a fort associated with Prithviraja Chauhan, also known as Rai Pithora, whose political center was in Ajmer. The full circuit of the walls of Qila Rai Pithora have not been traced, but it was evidently much larger than the Tomara Lal Kot. Sections of the stone wall are 5 to 7 meters thick and 18 meters high. The remains of some structures, house floors and a hearth were identified within the fortified area. It should be noted that while Prithviraja may have had nominal control over Delhi, the Tomaras may have continued to rule over the area, albeit acknowledging Chauhan overlordship. The strong tradition associating Prithviraja Chauhan directly with Delhi seems to have evolved in later centuries after Delhi became a premier symbol of political power and legitimacy.33

One or more mints seem to have been located in the Delhi area during the Tomara and Chauhan periods.34 Several Rajput coins made of bullion (an alloy of silver and copper), bearing the names of the ruling king, have been found in Delhi. These are known as the bull-and-horseman type, as they depict a bull on the obverse and a horse and rider on the reverse. Some of them also have symbols such as a trident. The coins have a mean weight of 3.38 grams. They give the names of Tomara kings Sallakshanapala, Anangapala, Madanapala; and Chauhan kings Pithimva, Somesvara, Chahada, and Prithviraja. Rajput coins continued to circulate in the early Sultanate period.

Various isolated sculptural remains found in the Delhi area seem to have been associated with temples. A 13th-century stone image of the god Vishnu was found in the Qutb area, and is now displayed in the National Museum. Several Hindu and Jaina sculpted fragments were reused in the building of the Qutb congregational mosque. It seems that the mosque itself was built at the site of a Hindu temple, part of whose plinth, and some of whose pillars were identified by Alexander Cunningham. Not far from this place, the 13th-century tomb of Sultan Ghari, the eldest son of Sultan Iltutmish, has architectural elements of a temple embedded in its structure.

Jaina activity in the Delhi area is suggested not only by the Jaina sculptural remains but also by the fact that Yoginipura (one of the old names of Delhi) seems to have been a center of Jaina manuscript production from at least the early 13th century.35 The Jaina connections are also evident in the fact that the earliest textual reference to the name “Dhilli” comes from a Jaina Apabhramsha text, the Pasanahacariu.36 This text, written in 1132, is essentially a hagiography of the twenty-third Jaina saint Parshvanatha, written by a Digambara Jaina poet named Shridhara for a wealthy merchant named Nattala Sahu. Not only does the work mention “Dhilli” as the place where the poet was commissioned to write his work, but it also contains a eulogistic, literary description of the city, its fort, and its marketplace.

Early Medieval Inscriptions

A handful of inscriptions found in the Delhi area refer to its political and social history. Two inscribed stone slabs, which seem to have been part of a single inscription and whose findspot is unspecified, were reported in Indian Archaeology—A Review, in 1994–1995. The inscriptions are in the Sanskrit language and Siddhamatrikascript, and seem to belong to the 8th or 9th century. One of them mentions the installation of the image of a deity by Sri Madhava, described as a maharajadhiraja (great king of kings); the other refers to a person named Bhatta Divakara and a scribe (kayastha) named Sajjana, and mentions the making of pictures, including those of kings.

The earliest epigraphic references to a place named Dilli (the old name of Delhi) belong to this period. The iron pillar at Mehrauli, discussed earlier, has a few short inscriptions besides the inscription of Chandra. One of these is an 11th-century inscription which refers to one Angapala (i.e., AnangapalaTomara) with Dhilli or Dihali (Delhi). This inscription, which can no longer be seen on the pillar, has been read and translated in different ways.37 Regardless of the reading, this syntactically awkward inscription which does not seem to be a royal record, seems to connect the Tomara ruler Anangapala (no doubt Anangapala II) with Dilli.

It is interesting that a legend with several variations, recounted in Chand Bardai’s Prithvirajaraso connects the Tomara Rajput king Anangpala with a pillar. According to this legend, Anangapala was told by a Brahmin that the base of the pillar was very deep and rested on the head of Vasuki, the king of snakes. The Brahmin also stated that the pillar was immovable, and that Anangapala’s rule would last as long as it stood. The king was curious and ordered the pillar dug out. When uprooted, the base was found to be covered with the blood of the snake king, whose head had been pierced by the operations. Anangapala was alarmed and quickly ordered the pillar re-planted in its place. According to the story, despite all efforts, the pillar remained loose (dhili), and this is how the city of Dilli got its name. While the story is clearly a later legend, it reflects the connection between the city of Dilli and the Tomara Rajputs, a connection that is supported by historical evidence. The legend of the miraculous pillar also came to be integrated into accounts of Prithviraja Chauhan establishing himself in Delhi, indicating the importance it came to acquire in political geography and political imagination.38

A few inscriptions refer to the sequence of political changes in the Delhi area in early medieval times.39An 1170 ce inscription found at Bijholia in Rajasthan describes the Chauhan ruler Vigraharaja (IV) or Bisaladeo (1153–1164) as the conqueror of Dhillika (another old name of Delhi). The 13th-century Palam Baoli inscription, found in a step well in Palam village in southwest Delhi, tells us that this step well (baoli) was constructed by a householder of Dilli named Uddhara. It also mentions the land of Hariyanaka (within which Dilli was located) as having been ruled in succession by the Tomaras, Chauhans and “Shakas.” Here, “Shaka” refers to the early kings of the Delhi Sultanate, and the names of these kings from Muhammad of Ghor to Balban is given. The inscription also tells us that the city of Dilli was renowned by the name of Yoginipura, giving us another name of the place, and suggesting that there was once a temple dedicated to female deities known as the yoginis here.

The 13th-century Delhi Museum Stone inscription, which was found at Sonepat, north of Delhi, talks of the construction of a well in Suvarnaprastha village. It too gives a sequence of rule over Dhillika (i.e., Delhi) in the Hariyana country—the Tomaras, Chahamanas, and Shakas. The 14th-century Sarban inscription, which was found in a village near Raisena Road in New Delhi tells us that two merchants named Khetala and Paitala built a well in Saravala village (this can be identified with the place where the inscription was found), which was located in an administrative unit called Indraprastha. The inscription recounts the sequence of Tomara, Chahamana, and Turushka (Turkish) rule. The 14th-century Naraina inscription, found in Naraina in west Delhi, records the building of a well in a village by a person named Shridhara. It talks of a great province called Hariyana within which lay the city of Dhilli (i.e., Delhi), and states that Nadayana (which can be identified with Naraina) was situated to the west of Indraprastha.

Ancient Remains in the Modern Cityscape

The remains of Delhi’s ancient past are intertwined with its medieval and modern histories. This is most clearly reflected in the Ashokan pillars which have later inscriptions and were moved to Delhi by Firuz Shah Tughluq in the 14th century.40 The Gupta-period iron pillar in the Qutb complex is another striking example of an ancient artifact in a medieval setting. The archaeological remains at the Purana Qila and Lal Kot, the water-works at Anangpur and Surajkund are visible testimony to the history of this area over the centuries. The ancient past can also be seen woven into the present in various villages around Delhi, where old images and their fragments can often be seen assembled and worshipped in village shrines, for instance at Tilpat [See figure 6]. Delhi continues to be a thriving center of trade and commerce, as it was over the centuries, although its position as the national capital tends to overshadow its many other important facets.

The Early History of DelhiClick to view larger

Figure 6. Village shrine, Tilpat.

As Delhi is a heavily built-up area, and the density of population is growing steadily, it is likely that any further additions to our knowledge of the early history of this area will be the result of stray discoveries. The rocky stretches of the Ridge hold great potential for revealing prehistoric artefacts, and remains of the historic period are locked in the meager remains of mounds in the plains. As the pressure on land for agriculture and the construction of roads and buildings increases, and if excessive and illegal quarrying continues unabated, such valuable finds are likely to be systematically destroyed. There is an urgent need for further exploration, documentation, and protection of the vestiges of Delhi’s early history.

Discussion of the Literature

The archaeological data on the early history of Delhi is contained in various archaeological reports extending from 1874 to 2014. The text and translations of the inscriptions of Ashoka and Chandra and those of the early medieval period have been published. Writings on the Tomara and Chauhan Rajputs discuss their connections with the Delhi area. The books by Upinder Singh and B. R. Mani connect the scattered references and the archaeological data into a connected narrative. Due to the paucity of information, the profile of Delhi’s early history can at present only take the form of broad brushstrokes. The wealth of detail that is available for certain other ancient Indian cities or for the Delhi in medieval and modern times is simply not forthcoming. This is a serious hindrance to the reconstruction of the spatial, social, economic, and cultural aspects of the many settlements that existed in this area over the centuries.

Primary Sources

Texts have little to offer on Delhi’s early history, and as mentioned above, archaeology is the key. The problem is that since Delhi is a busy, bustling city with an ever-burgeoning population, the steady expansion of construction activity has been systematically destroying valuable archaeological evidence. Excavations are not easy in this densely populated area. The published archaeological documentation of Delhi’s early history is miniscule compared to what remains buried under the ground and what has been permanently destroyed. For no period in Delhi’s early history do we have the kind of detailed documentation that is available for protohistoric sites such as Mohenjo Daro or for early historic sites such as Taxila.

None of the archaeological excavations in the Delhi have produced scientific dates, so the dates assigned to various levels at various sites should be understood as approximate dates. Rough chronologies have been constructed largely on the basis of diagnostic pottery types (and associated artifact assemblages) and comparisons with the stratigraphic sequence at other sites in north India such as Hastinapur. It should be noted that there are strong disagreements among archaeologists on the chronological brackets that should be assigned to the various ceramic types after which archaeological layers are labeled. Apart from pottery, where they have been found, coins form a useful and more precise chronological marker at archaeological sites

Indian archaeologists usually label archaeological strata according to dynasties. Such labels are also used in the case of sites over which the concerned dynasties never exercised any political control. Dynastic labels for archaeological strata should be considered as a short-hand for rough chronological brackets rather than as connected directly with dynastic history. In the context of Delhi’s early history, there is a special problem with the use of the labels “Rajput phase” and “Sultanate phase.” The transition from one to the other has often been ascertained by archaeologists on the basis of the occurrence of glazed pottery, which is generally seen as an innovation brought in during the Delhi Sultanate in the 11th century. However, the larger assumption in some of the archaeological writing—that the advent of Turkish rule led to radical changes in material culture which are clearly visible in the archaeological record—can be questioned.41

While remains of houses and ordinary artefacts are clues to the lives of communities who inhabited the Delhi area centuries ago, stray and often broken religious sculptures point to the existence of religious structures that have long perished. The inscriptional evidence begins from the 3rd century bce, but the real flow of epigraphic material begins in the early medieval period. A number of records inscribed on stone throw light on the dynasties that ruled over the area. Numismatic evidence is available from the early centuries of the Common Era. This too becomes more abundant in the early medieval period. Oral traditions, documented from the 19th century onwards, throw light on popular perceptions of Delhi’s ancient past.

Further Reading

Archaeological Survey of India Reports, Vol. 4. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 2000 [1874].Find this resource:

    Babu, B. S. R. “Excavations at Bhorgarh,” Puratattva 25 (1994–1995): 88–93.Find this resource:

      Babu, B. S. R. “Mandoli—A Late Harappan Settlement in Delhi.” In Spectrum of Indian Culture (Professor S. B. Deo Felicitation Volume), Edited by C. Margabandhu and K. S. Ramachandran, 98–104. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1996.Find this resource:

        Balasubramaniam, R. Delhi Iron Pillar: New Insights. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study; and New Delhi: Aryan Books, 2002.Find this resource:

          Beglar, J. D. M., and A. C. L. Carlleyle. Report for the Year 1871–72, Delhi, Agra. Calcutta: Archaeological Survey of India, 1874.Find this resource:

            Bhandarkar, D. R., B. Chhabra, and G. S. Gai, eds. Corpus InscriptionumIndicarum. Vol. 3, Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 1981.Find this resource:

              Chakrabarti, Dilip K., and Nayanjot Lahiri. “A Preliminary Report on the Stone Age of the Union Territory of Delhi and Haryana.” Man and Environment 11 (1987): 109–116.Find this resource:

                Cunningham, Alexander. Four Reports Made during the Years 1962-63-64-65, Archaeological Survey of India Reports, Vol. 1. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, [1871] 2000.Find this resource:

                  Grover, A. K., and P. L. Bakliwal. “River Migration and the Floods—A Study of the Yamuna River through Remote Sensing.” Man and Environment 9 (1985): 51–53.Find this resource:

                    Indian Archaeology—A Review, 1994–95, 1969–70, 1970–71. New Dehi: Archaeological Survey of India.Find this resource:

                      Joshi, M. C., and B. M. Pande. “A Newly-Discovered Inscription of Asoka at Bahapur, Delhi.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Parts 3–4 (1967): 96–98.Find this resource:

                        Lahiri, Nayanjot, Upinder Singh, and Tarika Oberoi. “Preliminary Field Report on the Archaeology of Faridabad.” Man and Environment 21 (1996): 32–57.Find this resource:

                          Lahiri, Nayanjot, Upinder Singh, and Tarika Oberoi. The Archaeology of Indian Trade Routes up to c. 200 BC: Resource Use, Resource Access and Lines of Communication. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                            Mani, B. R. Delhi: Threshold of the Orient (Studies in Archaeological Investigations. New Delhi: Aryan Books, 1997.Find this resource:

                              Prasad, Pushpa. Sanskrit Inscriptions of Delhi Sultanate 1191–1526. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

                                Sharma, A. K. Prehistoric Delhi and its Neighbourhood. New Delhi: Aryan Books, 1993.Find this resource:

                                  Singh, Upinder. Ancient Delhi. 2nd ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, [1999] 2010.Find this resource:

                                    Singh, Upinder, ed. Delhi: Ancient History. New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                                      Swarnkar, Vasant Kumar, and Vishnu Kant. “Excavations at Purana Qila, 2013–14.”Purātattva no. 44 (2014): 320–325.Find this resource:


                                        (1.) See R. Nath, Monuments of Delhi: Historical Study (New Delhi: Indian Institute of Islamic Studies, 1979) for an abridged English translation.

                                        (2.) Maulavi Zafar Hasan, Monuments of Delhi: Lasting Splendour of the Great Mughals and Others, ed. J. A. Page, with an introduction by R. C. Agrawal, 3 vols. (New Delhi: Aryan Books, 1997 [1916]).

                                        (3.) Delhi: The Built Heritage – A Listing, 2 vols. (New Delhi: Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, 1999).

                                        (6.) See Upinder Singh, The Discovery of Ancient India: Early Archaeologists and the Beginnings of Archaeology (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004),

                                        (11.) Nayanjot Lahiri, The Archaeology of Indian Trade Routes Up to c. 200 BC: Resource Use, Resource Access and Lines of Communication (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), 367–377; Moti Chandra, Trade and Trade Routes in Ancient India (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1977), 12–22.

                                        (13.) Jayant K. Tripathi and V. Rajamani, “Geochemistry of the Loessic Sediments on Delhi Ridge, Eastern Thar Desert, Rajasthan: Implications for Exogenic Processes,” Chemical Geology 155 (1999): 265–278.

                                        (14.) Chakrabarti and Lahiri, “A Preliminary Report on the Stone Age of the Union Territory of Delhi and Haryana.”

                                        (15.) Mudit Trivedi, “On the Surface Things Appear to Be . . . Perspectives on the Archaeology of the Delhi Ridge,” in Ancient India: New Research, ed. Upinder Singh and Nayanjot Lahiri (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009), 39–70.

                                        (16.) A. K. Sharma, Prehistoric Delhi and Its Neighbourhood, 19–49.

                                        (17.) B. S. R. Babu, “Mandoli—A Late Harappan Settlement in Delhi,” in Spectrum of Indian Culture (Professor S. B. Deo Felicitation Volume), ed. C. Margabandhu and K. S. Ramachandran (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1996), 98–104.

                                        (18.) B. S. R. Babu, “Excavations at Bhorgarh,” Puratattva 25 (1994–1995): 88–93. Period I was described as a Late Harappan level (2nd millennium BCE); Period II as Painted Grey Ware level (1st millennium BCE); Period II as a Kushana level (2nd–3rd centuries CE); and Period IV as Medieval (16th–17th centuries). Some questions have been raised about this sequence by B. R. Mani, Delhi: Threshold of the Orient, 20, 23. He points out that there is likely to have been another level of occupation before and after Period II. Further, he suggests that the labeling of the earliest levels at Bhorgarh and Mondoli as Late Harappan may be premature.

                                        (19.) Recently, it has been suggested by Vinay Kumar Gupta and B. R. Mani that the early phase of the PGW culture in Mathura may go back to c. 2300 BCE and that a revision of the dates assigned to various early Indian ceramic cultures is required (see Vinay Kumar Gupta and B. R. Mani, “Painted Grey Ware Culture: Changing Perspectives,” Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology 5 (2017): 370–379).

                                        (20.) See Gupta and Mani, “Painted Grey Ware Culture: Changing Perspectives.”

                                        (21.) R. Balasubramaniam has discussed the technical aspects of the pillar and has shown that the reasons for its high rust resistance do not lie in environmental factors but in manufacturing technology and metallic composition. R. Balasubramaniam, Delhi Iron Pillar: New Insights (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study; and New Delhi: Aryan Books, 2002).

                                        (22.) See B. Chhabra and G. S. Gai, eds. Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, vol. 3 (New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 1981), 257–259.

                                        (23.) See Indian Archaeology: A Review (1969–70): 4–6; (1970–71): 10–11.

                                        (24.) See Mani, Delhi: Threshold of the Orient, 87–94. The excavators suggest that it is difficult to date the fort precisely on the basis of the remains.

                                        (25.) Mani, Delhi: Threshold of the Orient, 38–39.

                                        (27.) Mani, Delhi: Threshold of the Orient, 39.

                                        (28.) Mani, Delhi.

                                        (29.) Mani, Delhi, 42–85.

                                        (30.) Mani, Delhi, 42–86.

                                        (31.) Several terracottas of bearded male figures who look like soldiers, which were found in the “Rajput period” levels at Purana Qila, were found in “Sultanate levels” at Lal Kot. The excavators seem to have concluded that the association of these figures with the Rajput period at the Purana Qila was an error, and that they should instead be reassigned to the Sultanate period. Mani, Delhi: Threshold of the Orient, 84. The fact that the excavators were keen to connect Hindu and Jaina images with the “Rajput” period level rather than with Period II was no doubt part of their perspective that a “Hindu” and a “Muslim” period must be distinguished archaeologically. This is illustrative of the presuppositions that govern archaeological writings dealing with the Rajput/Turk interface.

                                        (32.) Mani, Delhi: Threshold of the Orient, 77.

                                        (33.) See Cynthia Talbot, The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), esp. chap. 3.

                                        (34.) See P. C. Roy, “Madanapala: The Issuer of the Horseman and Bull Type,” Journal of the Numismatic Society of India 32 (1971): 176–182; John S. Deyell, Living Without Silver: The Monetary History of Early Medieval North India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 155, 179–180.

                                        (35.) See B. N. Goswami, “In the Sultan’s Shadow: Pre-Mughal Painting in and around Delhi,” in Delhi Through the Ages: Essays in Urban History, Culture and Society, ed. R. E. Frykenberg (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986), 136–138.

                                        (36.) See Richard J. Cohen, “An Early Attestation of the Toponym Ḍhillī,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 109, no. 4 (October–December 1989): 513–519.

                                        (37.) Cohen, “An Early Attestation of the Toponym Ḍhillī,” 516–517.

                                        (38.) See Talbot, The Last Hindu Emperor, 73–86.

                                        (40.) See Upinder Singh, Ancient Delhi (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006 [1999]), 51–62.

                                        (41.) See Supriya Varma and Jaya Menon, “Archaeology and the Construction of Identities in Medieval North India,” Studies in History 24 no. 2 (2008): 173–193.